AFTER only 36 hours in Hong Kong, Michael Williams thought he had easily handed out more than 70 business cards. Mr Williams is a director at Dewhirst Group, a British fashion wholesaler to department store Marks & Spencer. He was part of a UK business delegation on a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong and Guangzhou sponsored by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. 'We're looking at expanding our production capacity in China through joint-ventures,' Mr Williams said. 'And we know we need a strong Hong Kong contact to do that.' Buoyed by the success of British department store Marks & Spencer, British retailers and wholesalers are looking hard again at Hong Kong and China as suppliers and markets for British fashion merchandise. The trade imbalance between Hong Kong and the UK is most starkly seen in clothing. Exports and re-exports of clothing and clothing accessories from Hong Kong to Britain were US$1.01 billion for the first nine months this year. British clothing exports to Hong Kong were a mere $71 million. The other company visiting Hong Kong is Facia, an independent British retailing group formed only 14 months ago. Chief operating officer Gary O'Brien said the eclectic mix of retailers - including shoe store Freeman Hardy & Willis, Oakland Men's Wear, the Sock Shop, and costume jewellery seller Torq - is due to Facia's focus on underperforming stores. 'We bought other companies' 'unwanted children',' Mr O'Brien said. Combined, the stores had a 1994 turnover of GBP200 million (about HK$2.37 billion) and employed 1,200 people. Facia plans to turn its stores around by focusing each stores' product line and improving management. At Contessa, a 130-store lingerie retailer with anaemic sales, Mr O'Brien helped take out about one-quarter of the inventory, mostly the 'frumpy product' he said. 'With lingerie, comfort is a factor, but sex is the bigger factor,' Mr O'Brien said, alluding to the success of another purveyor of women's lingerie, Victoria's Secret. Facia is seeking franchise partners in order to bring their upmarket speciality retailers to Asia. Mr O'Brien was not deterred by talk of a weak local retail market. Hong Kong's economic picture was still rosy, he said, especially compared with the UK. Facia sees Hong Kong not as a market in itself, but a 'stepping stone' into the Middle Kingdom. 'China is the consumer society of the future,' Mr O'Brien said. The key to Facia's success in Asia was to develop the brand recognition of its speciality stores, he said. Already in Japan, customers were 'crying out' for the street fashion of Red or Dead, one of Facia's trendier retailers, he said. Mr O'Brien saw China as a long-term project. Although it is the world's most populous market with 1.2 billion people, China is also one of the world's least developed. Many urban families have only about US$250 to spend on non-essential items every year. Dewhirst has grown from supplying GBP19 million worth of clothes to Marks and Spencer in 1990 to an expected GBP300 million in 1995. Dewhirst, the largest supplier of the Marks & Spencer house brand St Michael, would like to shift much of its production to China and Hong Kong. Mr Williams said Dewhirst subcontracts from only one Macau factory. They would prefer to build a joint-venture rather than subcontract their production. With seven Marks & Spencer stores in Hong Kong and an office in Shanghai, it will not be long before Dewhirst follows suit. 'You can't service Asia from the UK,' he said.